I seem to recall an old adage that the best birds were found under the coldest, most miserable conditions in winter, especially when it came to Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs). This CBC season provided anecdotal evidence to the contrary. The low temperatures for 2019-20 counts in the region ranged from 20 to 56 degrees F with that low of 20 on the Nokesville count on December 22, 2019. High temperatures ranged from 44 to 76 degrees F with that high temperature of 76 recorded in Cape Charles on December 30, 2019. Not one count had any precipitation on count day, most had partly cloudy to cloudy skies, with some clearing during the day. The ‘harshest’ condition encountered was morning fog on six counts.
Also contradicting that adage were the two new species added on Virginia and Washington, D.C. CBCs this year. An Anna’s Hummingbird was documented and photographed on the Northern Shenandoah Valley CBC on December 14, 2019. Also, on December 14, 2019, a Lazuli Bunting was found on the Washington, DC count; the sighting was also well documented and photographs taken and is now under review by the Virginia Avian Records Committee. Several species were new for individual counts. Almost every count set local record highs and many set new high counts for multiple species. Some of these local new species and record high counts are mentioned below.
Fifty-five Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) were conducted in this region during the 2019-2020 season. The total number of species recorded on the 2019-20 counts was 216. The total number of individuals was 898,931.
Two entirely new counts were added in 2019. The Middle Peninsula CBC includes parts of Gloucester, Middlesex, and King and Queen Counties and is compiled by Susan Crockett. The 48 participants on the Middle Peninsula count tallied 82 species for their first year. The Cedars Preserve-Jonesville CBC is in the far southwestern corner of the state west of Abington; the circle is centered in Virginia with about one-third of the circle in Tennessee. LaRoy Brandt is compiling this count where 12 observers logged 49 species this year. The only compiler change this season was Evan Spears who took over the Highland County count from Patti Reum; in doing so, Evan also converted this to an Audubon CBC.
Mute Swan numbers have dropped to 34 tallied in both 2018 and 2019. This is less than a fourth of the record high number of 142 seen in 2001.The first Trumpeter Swans were encountered on the region’s CBCs in the mid-2000s and were found sporadically for the next few years. However, now they have been observed somewhere in the region on each of the three previous CBCs (2 in 2016, 4 in 2017, an amazing 17 on five counts in 2018) and this year eight were recorded: two at The Plains, three at Calmes Neck, and three at Rappahannock. Only 2700 Tundra Swans were reported this year; this is well under half the 6767 seen in 2017 which was the highest number logged in the past 20 years.
Despite the 3657 Gadwalls being the second lowest number reported in the last ten years, several places had record high counts: eight at Northumberland-Lancaster, 57 at Warren, 22 at Calmes Neck, seven at Highland County, and six at Clifton Forge (a new species on this count). The 1763 American Wigeon was the second highest number seen in the last ten years; CBCs with record high counts were: 150 Wachapreague, eight Northumberland-Lancaster, and two Clifton Forge (a new species on this count). This year and last year, American Black Duck numbers have been about half what they were in 2017 (7061 in 2017, 3179 in 2018 and 3855 in 2019). But some counts still had record high numbers of American Black Ducks: Rappahannock (22), Highland County (3), and Clifton Forge (48). Blue-winged Teal were only recorded on one count this year with 17 on the Back Bay count. Despite only being detected on one count, this number is above the ten-year average of 12.
As expected, most game bird numbers were low. As many as 85 Northern Bobwhite have been found in the last ten years but fewer than that each of the last four years (67 in 2016, 56 in 2017, 32 in 2018, and 20 in 2019). Only three counts recorded Northern Bobwhite: eight at Mathews, 11 at Walkerton, and one at Sandy River Reservoir (a new species here) for a total of 20. Three counts reported only four Ruffed Grouse: one each at Highland County and Blackford, plus two at Wise County; this is down from five observed on five counts last year. The only game bird with encouraging numbers is Wild Turkey with 1612 logged on this season’s CBCs. An average of 39 were seen on each of 41 counts in the region plus one count week sighting. Several counts saw record high numbers of Wild Turkey: Wachapreague (76), Back Bay (55), Nansemond River (129), Dismal Swamp (17), Walkerton (102), Northumberland-Lancaster (163), Calmes Neck (121), Northern Shenandoah Valley (128), Augusta County (30), Blacksburg (151), and Washington, DC (27). The ten-year running average for Wild Turkeys was 356 two decades ago; today the ten-year running average has more than tripled to 1166.
The only American White Pelicans were the seven found on the Williamsburg count (a local high count) although Cape Charles and Back Bay had count week sightings of them. Brown Pelicans were seen on nine counts plus one count week observance; their numbers hit a ten-year high of 887 which is nearly triple the 296 recorded last year. Two CBCs had local high counts for Brown Pelican (79 at Williamsburg and 234 at Northumberland-Lancaster).
Golden Eagles were found on the expected counts: three each at Highland County, Mount Rogers-Whitetop Mountain, and Blackford, but one was also a new species on the Nassawadox CBC for a total of 10 (the same number seen on last year’s counts). A single Northern Goshawk was documented on the Waynesboro count. This year 1536 Bald Eagles were observed across the region on 45 counts plus two count week observances. Many counts had record high numbers of Bald Eagle: Mathews (63), Northumberland-Lancaster (50), Brooke (350, also the highest number tallied on a single count in this region this year), Central Loudon (39), 40 each at The Plains and Calmes Neck, 7 at Highland County, and 8 at Tazewell. Bald Eagle numbers have been increasing for some time as evidenced by their ten-year running average which has more than tripled to 1241 in 2019 from 374 in 2000.
The only American Avocets were three at Chincoteague. The only Semipalmated Plovers were 19 at Cape Charles and 11 at Nansemond River (a local high count) for a total of 30. A single Spotted Sandpiper was detected on the Newport News count. The only Red Knots were 21 on the Cape Charles CBC. There were only two Purple Sandpipers seen on two counts: one each at Cape Charles and Mathews.
A single Parasitic Jaeger was reported on the Back Bay count. The record high count of 104 Razorbills set last year was broken with 149 observed this year on Back Bay (also a local high count). Little Creek recorded the only Black-legged Kittiwake, Black-headed Gull, and Glaucous Gull sightings in the region this year with one each. A single Common Tern was seen on the Newport News count. Nine Royal Terns turned up on three counts: five at Chincoteague (a local high count), two each at Little Creek and Back Bay. Four Black Skimmer were counted with one at Little Creek and three at Newport News.
The first Eurasian Collared-Dove observed on a regional CBC was a single bird in 2003 on the Cape Charles count. Sixteen years later, in 2019, 46 Eurasian Collared-Doves were seen on four counts plus there were two count week observances: Chincoteague (1), Cape Charles (3), Back Bay (CW), Rockingham County (37, a local high count), Blacksburg (CW), and Glade Spring (5). A single White-winged Dove was photographed on the Cape Charles count where it was a new species. The only other White-winged Dove documented on a CBC in this region was one recorded in 1987 on the Wachapreague CBC.
Nine counts logged a total of 14 Barn Owls. This is just below the ten-year running average which has remained around 15 since 2010. Eastern Screech-Owl numbers exceeded last year’s number by over 50 as 185 were seen this season on 34 counts but only 133 were reported last year. Great Horned Owls were tallied on 33 counts with a total of 136, plus two count week observations. Their ten-year running average has been declining for some time; this average dropped below 200 for the first time in 2007 and has continued to drop to only 167 this year. However, Barred Owl numbers have been increasing over the past four decades; their ten-year running average was 57 in 1989 and has nearly doubled to 99 this year. Barred Owls were recorded on 33 counts with a total of 127 plus one count week observation. As was the case last year, the only Long-eared Owl was encountered on the Northern Shenandoah Valley CBC. Four Short-eared Owls were found on three counts: one each at Hopewell and Calmes Neck, and two at Augusta County. This total is down from eight detected on five counts last year.
Last year the only hummingbird species encountered was a single Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Cape Charles; this year, not a single Ruby-throated Hummingbird was tallied. But a variety of other hummingbirds made up for that. A Black-chinned Hummingbird was well documented on the Williamsburg count and is under review by the Virginia Avian Records Committee (VARCOM); the only other Black-chinned Hummingbird recorded on a Virginia CBC was one on the Lynchburg count in 2007. As mentioned earlier, an Anna’s Hummingbird was observed and photographed on the Northern Shenandoah Valley count; this bird was submitted and has already been accepted by VARCOM. Three Rufous Hummingbirds, one at Rappahannock and two at Blacksburg, were seen for the first time since 2017 when one was found. This year they were all photographed.
Although no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were reported this year after being recorded for the last three years on the Dismal Swamp CBC, other woodpeckers were seen in abundance in 2019: Red-headed Woodpecker (414), Red-bellied Woodpecker (4246), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (1169), Downy Woodpecker (2965), Hairy Woodpecker (490), Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker (2875) and Pileated Woodpecker (1290). Many counts established new high counts for more than one woodpecker species this year.
Ash-throated Flycatcher was found for the second year in a row. In 2018 a single Ash-throated Flycatcher was seen at Back Bay. Surprisingly in 2019, an Ash-throated Flycatcher was were documented on each of three counts: singles at Little Creek, Nansemond River, and Dismal Swamp (this one was photographed).
Loggerhead Shrikes numbers were about the same this year when nine were seen (1 Calmes Neck, 1 Northern Shenandoah Valley, 1 Blacksburg, 2 Glade Spring, and 4 Blackford) as 10 were reported last year.
Five counts recorded single White-eyed Vireos: Chincoteague, Back Bay, Nansemond River, Northumberland-Lancaster, and Sandy River Reservoir (this last one was photographed); three of these are coastal counts where White-eyed Vireos show up fairly regularly but this was a new species for Northumberland-Lancaster and Sandy River Reservoir. A single Yellow-throated Vireo was photogtaphed on the Cape Charles CBC where it was a new species. The only other time a Yellow-throated Vireo was tallied on a CBC in this region was on the Back Bay count in 1970. The second highest number of Blue-headed Vireos, 29, were seen this year; the highest was 30 in 1992. The ten-year running average for Blue-headed Vireos has been around 10 for most of the time since 2000 but this ten-year average may start rising if these high numbers continue as 20 Blue-headed Vireos were found in 2018.
The 76 House Wrens were below the 95 from 2018. But the 95 House Wrens reported last year were the most seen in the last 20 years and there were years in that period where the numbers recorded were in the teens, so 76 is still an encouraging number. The 27 Sedge Wrens observed were on six Coastal counts including one found as far west as Hopewell (where it was photographed); this is the second highest number reported in the last ten years (33 were detected in both 2011 and 2012). Marsh Wren numbers were the second highest in the last 20 years as 51 were documented on nine counts compared to the high for the period of 53 in 2016. This is especially encouraging as the lowest numbers since 2000 were five and four recorded in 2009 and 2010, respectively. A record high count of Carolina Wrens was a pleasant surprise since the very first ones were logged on a CBC in Virginia in 1909 as 7354 were tallied this year!
Warbler species were not as numerous: five Black-and-white Warbler, 43 Orange-crowned Warbler, 14 Common Yellowthroat, CW American Redstart (photographed in Clifton Forge), one Yellow Warbler (photographed in Hopewell), 111 Palm Warblers (including 7 identified as Western & 3 identified as Eastern), 322 Pine Warbler, 9964 Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler, two Yellow-throated Warblers (CW Little Creek, 1 Williamsburg, and 1 photographed in Washington, DC), and 1 Wilson’s Warbler (Manassas-Bull Run).
Nelson’s Sparrow numbers were up as 21 were seen compared to only nine in 2018 and five in 2017. Their ten-year running average has dropped to the mid-teens for the past four years. Saltmarsh Sparrow numbers were also up with 37 compared to eight in 2018 and none in 2017. This upward trend continues with Seaside Sparrows as 19 were recorded this year compared to six in 2018 and four in 2017. American Tree Sparrow reverses the trend with only 18 logged this year compared to 33 in 2018 and 27 in 2017. This is the lowest number of American Tree Sparrows found in the last 50 years of CBCs. Since the range for American Tree Sparrows has shrunk to the point that only the area along the northern border of the region is included in their winter range, this is not too surprising. Chipping Sparrow numbers have been increasing; over 2000 were tallied this year and last year (2158 in 2019 and 2192 in 2018). Their ten-year running average is now 1789 and has been steadily increasing since 2000 when this average was only 583. Field Sparrow numbers continue to decline; 1488 were reported in 2019. Their ten-year running average is now 1613 which is far below its peak of over 4000 in the mid-1980s.
Only two Lark Sparrows were recorded and both photographed on this region’s CBCs: one at Little Creek (a new species for this count) and one at Washington, DC. Lark Sparrows have been observed on three CBCs in this region since 2010 (Cape Charles in 2010, Waynesboro in 2011, and Back Bay in 2016). Fox Sparrow numbers were low this year with only 287 found; but their ten-year running average has been around 400 since 2015 so hopefully this was just one low year. Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco numbers have been falling; for the past five years, their numbers have been below 20,000, dipping close to 10,000 this year (18,900 in 2015, 19,567 in 2016, 18,472 in 2017, 13,462 in 2018 and only 10,665 in 2019). White-crowned Sparrow numbers in 2019 were less than half what they were in 2018 (1441 seen in 2018 versus 625 in 2019). However, White-throated Sparrow numbers have been fairly stable for 20 years; the ten-year running average has been around 20,000 since the mid 2000s. This year 20,435 White-throated Sparrows were tallied.
The only Vesper Sparrows were two reported at Cape Charles. This is below the ten-year running average of around fove that we’ve tallied since the mid 2000s. The Savannah Sparrow numbers vary somewhat year-to-year but their ten-year running average has hung around 1000 since 2010. This year 878 Savannah Sparrows were seen which is slightly above the 851 observed last year. Ipswich Savannah Sparrows were logged on five counts this year: Chincoteague (18), Wachapreague (10), Cape Charles (20), Little Creek (3), and Back Bay (11), so the total number of Savannah Sparrows including the Ipswich subspecies recorded this year is 940. Song Sparrow numbers have been similar for the last three years as 10,420 found in 2017, 10,274 in 2018 and 10,394 this year. Lincoln’s Sparrow usually turns up on a count or two each year; this year was no exception with one reported at Hopewell and one at Fort Belvoir. For five of the last six years, Fort Belvoir has recorded at least one Lincoln’s Sparrow. Swamp Sparrow numbers have been fairly consistent for the last three years (1524 in 2017, 1480 in 2018 and 1462 this year). The number of Eastern Towhees has increased every year for the last four years (985 in 2016, 1039 in 2017, 1161 in 2018 and 1241 this year). A lone Dickcissel was photographed on the Washington, DC count; this is the seventh appearance of a Dickcissel in the last ten years on the region’s CBCs.
Red-winged Blackbird numbers vary significantly from year-to-year; this year 75,558 were logged which is back up from 35,810 last year, but is still nowhere near the ten-year high of 188,136 from 2011. The number of Eastern Meadowlarks was 1076 which is up from the ten-year low of 796 last year. Rusty Blackbird numbers were over triple their number from last year as 1441 were seen this year compared to 381 last year. Nine Brewer’s Blackbirds were documented on two counts this year: six at Back Bay and three at Walkerton (a new species for this count) after being missed last year. Common Grackle numbers are more than double what they have been for the previous three years (18,105 in 2016, 21,247 in 2017, 16,038 in 2018 and 46,416 in 2019). Boat-tailed Grackle numbers were above 1000 at 1007; that many haven’t been reported since 1078 in 2011. Brown-headed Cowbird numbers were up at 5639 after only being in the 3000s for the last four years. The 27 Baltimore Orioles was the highest number observed in the last 40 years. Local record highs for Baltimore Oriole occurred on two counts: nine at Little Creek and two at Charlottesville.
Irruptive species were not expected in great numbers this year but a few showed up across the region. A total of 36 Red-breasted Nuthatch was tallied on 11 counts. Fifteen counts recorded 62 Purple Finches, and four CBCs tallied nine Pine Siskins.